A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad. -Theodore Roosevelt

Look up

I have a few guiding principles to my life I always adhere to. The first, and most important, is that each year of my life must surpass the last. I have succeeded in that goal every year so far, though the last four have been particularly exceptional.

It was 2007 when I stumbled into the office of the eminent geographer Denis Cosgrove at UCLA. To my surprise, he asked me to sit in his chair as he laid down on the couch. He then said, staring at the ceiling, ‘So tell me why you want to do a PhD…’ I waxed on at length about my frustrations as an archaeologist. ‘I don’t want to be in control of people’s pasts, I want to act historical facilitator rather that an interpreter.’ He looked at me, waiting for more. ‘You know, what I’ve been doing just feels inauthentic and I think cultural geography might be a better home discipline for me.’ He laid there for a bit before he told me, ‘It would be great to have you as a student here but you must know I have stomach cancer and may not live through your PhD if you were accepted into the programme. I think you should also apply to Royal Holloway, University of London where I used to be and sometimes still teach. Call Tim Cresswell.’ I did, and that’s how my story at Royal Holloway began. Cosgrove knew I was too twisted to do a PhD in puritan America.

A journey

At an end

It’s been four years now since I began that journey and a few days ago, it officially ended. I made the move from Mr Garrett to Dr Garrett in my Royal Holloway wizard robes and smurf hat. Although Denis died a few years earlier, just as he had predicted, I can’t help but think that he would have been proud to see me standing there with my parents sipping champagne while my project participants snuck into the ceremonies to infiltrate the campus steam tunnels in ties and dresses. My parents, to my delight, laughed at the whole affair. I guess they probably expected as much and I’m glad they were there for the pomp, circumstance and usual antics.

Gold

There are many people at Royal Holloway to thank for my time there. In particular, David Gilbert, Felix Driver and Alastair Pinkerton offered key advice during my PhD. Alice Christie kept me on track with pep talks every time I saw here that made sense of the world. Phil Crang took on the ‘fun job’ (as he calls it) of being my advisor, advising me to track down fresh articles and alerting me to exhibitions. He also had an eagle-eye for critical reading of my writing and an ability to cut right through my drifting prose to rip the heart out.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude Katherine Brickell not just for reading my work, inspiring me, keeping me on track, keeping me employed but for being my most trusted friend and collaborator. Most importantly, Tim Cresswell, as Denis well-knew, was the most well-suited supervisor I could have hoped for. As anyone who has done a PhD knows, your relationship with your supervisor is quiet special, it’s sort of like being adopted by another parent. Tim studied his PhD under Yi-Fu Tuan, who I suppose is a bit like my academic grandfather. From the 1960s when Tuan did his work, we have now moved from Space to Place to Place Hacking. We have bridged US and UK academia back and forth numerous times. We have also collectively inspired a lot of drama. It’s a great family to ride with. Almost as cool as the Garrett clan.

Back in the day, Tuan wrote that ‘human geography studies human relationships.’ It’s close to the mark but I respectfully suggest broadening that definition grandfather because good human geography also builds relationships. Ethnography is beautiful thing, you never know where it is going to go in the beginning and it can fracture in countless directions based on many different factors. I never could have expected that my time at RHUL would have led to the things it did.  What we have done in the past four years, the community we built, was something truly exceptional.

The LCC Old Guard

It was fitting then that the community we built with the support of Royal Holloway left something behind on graduation day to gel our legacy and make sure the university never forgets our four great years together. After considering our skill requirements, the perfect team stepped up for the job – Patch, Helen, Marc, Dan and Winch. Patch and I headed to ASDA for a king size black sheet and a bucket of emulsion and got painting. The next night, Dan and Marc rolled in at 2am and scaled the clock tower to strap on the banner. It lasted until 10:30am when I saw Olympics security personal trying to get it down with a long pole. They looked like they were enjoying themselves.

Patch on the roller

For a good cause

So yeah, I said the magic word – Olympics. Boo! I guess it’s well known by now that some of us were in and out of the Olympic park as we pleased during construction. G4S’s major security fuckups are not new news, I assure you. Royal Holloway is an official Olympic venue, with armed police and G4S personnel patrolling the campus and Founders building on total lockdown at night. Marc and Dan rolled out this banner 3 days before the 2012 Olympics swung into high gear and campus security had good reason to be embarrassed, even as I’m sure they can enjoy a good college prank as much as the next person.  So here’s are the mission details…

Back in 2008, Marc Explo and Hydra cracked the steam tunnels underneath the campus with me – they run from the boiler house to underneath Founders. It was not long before we had gone down with other PhD students: Michael Anton, Ashley Dawkins and Amy Cutler.

Hot and tight

First bite

The year after, Mike and I went back in the tunnels with some new PhD students. Four years later, this is now a tradition for new geography students (and probably other departments – we can’t be the only one’s curious enough to look right?).  Soon after we started thinking about the roof and spires, which we could now access at night through the steam tunnels.

Step 1

Step 2

And now it’s cubed

The view from the roof was exceptional and all sort of new routes across Founder’s could be devised. Now that I am gone, I expect students to carry on exploring everything on campus. I would be highly disappointed if the next generation of students do not mark out some new routes. Then again, I have been pretty shocked at the apathetic response to the securitisation of our university campus by both staff and students over the last few months – anybody want to apply some critical thinking skills to that process? To those students who still have some courage, some climbing anchors would be very helpful in a few places. Get busy!

A route

To glory

Requires delicacy

So, now that the PhD is over, a transition is taking place. I am actually sitting on a plane at Heathrow, ready to take off to Cambodia right now. Katherine Brickell and I will be working on a month-long project about domestic violence law using participatory video. When I get home at the end of August, it’s back to exploring (in 3 countries) until October.

Then, on October 1st, I am delighted to announce I will begin a new job amongst the dreaming spires at the University of Oxford as a Researcher in Technological Natures. While at Oxford, I will turn my thesis into a book with Verso, teach some subversive modules and conjure up my next big idea. So, against all odds, it appears that 2012 will top 2011 and 2013 is looking very bright indeed. Thanks to everyone who has followed along the way. Carry on exploring everything, the plane is taking off. I’m out.

Shizzle (photo by Harriet Hawkins)

Good luck with that Olympics thang by the way London, I’m sure it’s all going to be great fun.

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“The sensual mysticism of entire vertical being.” -E.E. Cummings

Sacking Olympus

As of December 2011, the Shard claimed the title of ‘tallest building in the European Union’, stretching 310 meters into the clouds from London Bridge. It has also been said that is it the most secure site in the city outside of the 2012 Olympic Park. I have never measured the building so I can’t testify to the validity of the first claim but I’m happy to respond to the second, as usual.

Sky Ladder

It was a crisp night outside London Bridge station. It was still but our breath curled in the 2am air. Marc Explo and I were standing on a temporary wooden walkway looking through a viewing window into the ground level construction yard of the largest skyscraper in Europe. “Gary” walked up behind us and, with a hand on each of our shoulders, also peered through. “One security guard looking after the Shard huh?” We chuckled. We waited for the guard to finish his current round and go into his hut. It took a few minutes of lingering before the walkway was clear of people – we grabbed onto the scaffolding pipes and swung off the bridge. Hanging on the freezing pipes, we pulled ourselves on top of the walkway and laid down out of view, waiting for a reaction in case anyone had seen or heard us. It didn’t seem so.

Vertical Maze

Staying low, we then descended the other side of the scaffolding, right behind the security hut where we could see the guard watching TV, not the cameras. Quickly, we scampered across the yard and found the central stair case, again pausing to see if there was any reaction from the yard, phones ringing or doors opening. It was silent.

Rhythm

Undertop

First we took the stairs two at a time. All three of us were in pretty good shape and could do 25 or 30 floors like that. But by the 31st floor, I was sweating heavily. Knowing that the sweat would sting when we emerged onto the roof, I tried to pace myself and breathe. By floor 50, my calves burned horribly and I was having to stop every once and a while to let them pulse a bit and untighten.

Sapped

At floor 70 the cement stairs turned into metal ones, indicating we were near the top. I was ecstatic. A final burst of enthusiasm took us from metal stairs to wooden ladders. We threw open one last hatch and found ourselves on top of the Shard at 76 stories.

Sky Warriors

As I climbed up on the counterweight of the crane, my breath caught. It was a combination of the icy wind and the sheer scale of the endeavor that shocked me. Marc was looking down at London Bridge station and whispered, “the train lines going into London Bridge look like the Thames, it’s all flow.” Slowly, I pulled myself to the end of the counter weight and peered over the edge. Indeed, we were so high, I couldn’t see anything moving at street level. No buses, no cars, just rows of lights and train lines that looked like converging river systems, a giant urban circuit board.

Trigger

Static

Flow

We found the cab of the crane open and slipped inside. “Gary” pointed to a green button on the control panel and said “watch this, I’m going to build the Shard!” pretending to press the button.

Builder

Warmth

We only lasted about half an hour on top before our muscles were seizing up and we were actually yearning for the stair climb down. Which is always much easier than coming up.

Lookout below!

Later, standing next to the Thames, staring up at the little red light blinking on top of the crane, it seemed unimaginable that I had my hands on it just hours earlier. Ever after, whenever I see the Shard from anywhere in the city, I can’t help but smile. Unlike when I was up there, shaking with fear taking this self-portrait. You’ve got two months to get yours before the tower tops out. Act before you think.

Don't trip

______________

This post is dedicated to “Gary”.

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“Revolutionary movements to not spread by contamination but by resonance.” – The Invisible Committee

Homebrew

There is one primary reason why the London Consolidation Crew has been so successful. Group dynamics. When the urban exploration scene in London started heating up in the past few years, we went through some growing pains as a crew: people getting left behind, bad publicity, jealousy, bad luck that led to busts. But we came out the other side and the result is that we are now more efficient and cohesive than ever. The stuff we’re doing now looks different than our 2010/2011 tube onslaught, but it’s no less ambitious.

We get messages constantly from people wanting to get involved – I guess it’s obvious how much fun we’re having! We appreciate that – please continue commenting and emailing, it’s good encouragement to keep us out there climbing skyscrapers in subzero temperatures, sinking anchors into walls at 4am and hiding from Metro drivers in Paris while we run the tracks. But we don’t do these things simply to entertain you sitting in front of your computer screen at home. We want to inspire you to build your own group of explorers and start cracking the place you reside. You don’t need us, you just need a couple of solid mates and a bit of overflowing angst or desire. Easy.

Still rolling

Eventually you may want to hit some bigger targets. In regards to group dynamics of a growing crew, here’s a lesson we’ve learned. Urban exploration is often perceived as a relatively solitary activity, something that we accomplish on the back of research, scoping, surveillance and execution in small groups. But in reality, the urban exploration crews that get the most high profile locations done (Holy Grails) are the ones that operate not on an ethic of one-upmanship but as a group – the Cave Clan learned this a long time ago and QX, Dsankt and Sergeant Marshall proved it again when they demolished the Paris Métro a few years back as a loose  infiltration collective. And while it’s true that the UK “scene” is, as Siologen says “all fucked up and weirdly political”, more fragmented than the current US Republican Party, our London crew is one of the tightest knit groups out there right now. Save one.

Tater Tots

_______________________

“Many such subterranean places are said to be found in Minnesota.”
          – Fredrika Bremer

I woke up in a basement at Shotgun Mario’s house surrounded by a massive pile of drippy waders, clutching a glass that was recently full of John and Becca’s heavenly homebrew ale on tap in the next room. I scratched my head and a host of sand particles dislodged themselves and sprinkled into my glass, salting my sleeping bag. My eyes hurt. Witek was drooling on a pillow next to me dreaming of train engines and Marc Explo, as usual, was naked in his sleeping bag snoring like a baby. I stumble upstairs and Mario is on the phone, editing maps and listening to heaving dubstep simultaneously. He looks eager and I’m pretty sure, after being here for 24 hours or so, he doesn’t sleep at all. We all slowly made our way over to DarlinClem’s and her pad was full of even more explorers, including Moses Gates, whom I had wanted to meet for years. It was all happening – we had finally made it to Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). It was a stupendous welcome party at DarlinClem’s the night before and now it was time to get busy – the crew had assured us they were going to put us to work before we arrived and Marc wanted to dig.

Stunner

Waiting for the drop

The reason MSP is our favorite sister crew, and arguably the world’s most famous UE collective, is not just because they party in sewers wearing spandex and swigging champagne. Nor is it just because they stage mass boat infiltrations in drains. It also isn’t just because they throw awesome illegal parties. It’s because they’re a huge, solid group of exceptional explorers that have accomplished an unimaginable amount in their city and love it as much as we love London. We have a lesson to learn from MSP where rinsing the city of locations didn’t stop them – it simply caused them to start thinking even more critically about what was possible, spinning off iterations of playful urban interaction through a relentless desire for more. They work through doldrums and always re-emerge into a new Golden Age. Just as we are doing now. That, I argue, is no coincidence.

Hotter than Cali

In short, the crew in MSP constantly rework the city through desire – a rather fluid proposition; desire is radically intransitive, not a thing in itself but that which enables us to desire. Both our crews are consumers and producers of that serotonin seepage, in the same way we might manufacture fear to increase adrenaline levels while exploring, in the same way I have helped manufacture the LCC, in the same way we take the bait to be the only one ever to drive a Mail Rail train. Urban exploration, while it may be viewed externally as a transgressive tactic, working to undermine closed systems, is also full of moments of comprehensive engagement with social life, triggering neural flashes where the husk of alienation is shed to reveal fruits of collective activity. The level of organisation, time and effort invested and sheer brilliance of group efforts and accomplishment (the fruit) in MSP is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Their consistent discoveries, especially in the fertile, porous, excavatable subterranean sandstone environment, reveal them to be the global rockstars of our little pastime.

Group project

Breakthrough!

Rewind to a revelation Winch came to last year when he told a herd of us in the Paris Sewers, “there are only two types of barriers we face – the physical, which we have little problem with now, and the social. Social barriers can be overcome too, we just have to hone our skill.” The kids in MSP are pros at this. In Chicago, when we set our sights on doing a live infiltration of the Legacy Tower, Shotgun Mario and Tony walked in with our group of 8 and pulled aside security with an errant question while we followed a resident to the lifts and made our way to the roof. Mario and Tony sacrificed their personal enjoyment for the benefit of the group. No one has gotten up there since. In our most successful infiltrations of the London Underground, we often had somebody “on top” to keep an eye our our access point, ferry ropes and distract civilians, both LutEx and Dicky have played that important part on major missions. This is an essential role in any successful infiltration crew.

Legacy

As Marc Explo suggested to me, place hacking is perfectly complimented by mind-hacking techniques by people such as Derren Brown (cheers to Katie Draper for introducing us to that sociopath). While we have subverted almost every type of physical barrier possible, we have largely failed to attempt to alter people’s perceptions of situations (the psychology hack). Which in many cases is easier, such as convincing hotel staff that you have lost your room key and need to get your stuff from the pool rather than sleeping on the roof and abseiling to the pool at 2am. So here was our second lesson learned from MSP – walk the shit and talk it, use all the tools at your disposal.

Infilapolis

Sizzled

Time for me to assert my favorite trope! Urban exploration is a place hack. Both virtual hacking and place hacking are elective procedures of participation in otherwise closed objects (proprietary cyberspace or off-limits architecture). In the same way hackers wouldn’t use a DDoS attack to achieve every goal, we also have a range of tactics, both distal (visual representations, smoke screening, misinformation campaigns) and proximal (sneaking, social engineering, brute force) at our disposal to hack our way into and rewrite places so that they feed into our manufactured identities (undercutting imposed identities). The explorer, by stratigically applying a fuller range of tactics, multiplies stories of places to create myths, dreams and visions of a present moment of possibility available to those harbouring desires to make them manifest. Once those stories are rewritten, they can then be restacked to add weight, contributing toward the collective breaking point. If we consider hacking as a constant arms race between those with the knowledge and power to erect barriers and those with the equal power, knowledge and especially desire, to disarm them, it is a logical step to begin considering ways beyond sneakiness and brute force to disarm closed architecture. Take for instance the following photos. There is only one way to get them and it had nothing to do with being sneaking past security or brutalising a keycode panel. It was a Trojan horse attack, plain and simple.

Global

Hack

Just as the hacker ethic cannot be simplistically reified, categorised or bounded, neither can explorers themselves. While I may point to an overarching impetus behind exploration as I see it, and bound explorers according to primary friendship groups or geographic location for analytical convenience, it is problematic to attempt to define a coordinated explorer ethos; individuals simply follow their desires, do their own edgework. But in a (loosely) coordinated group, individual desires can be channeled into the collective. Exemplar are the infamous Futtslutts Thelma and Towanda of MSP. These two don’t explore by anybody’s rules. They are, by and far, two of the most accomplished and daring explorers anywhere. Their courage incited Marc Explo and I to charge headlong into a tiny stoop filled with raw, black sewage like molasses, packed with cobwebs and little white subterranean spiders, fending them off with a stick and a bottle of Uncle Andre until the fumes almost took us down for good. It was a hot moment. But also, through their radically impractical assault on that poo den, another tunnel was crossed off the list. Individual desire fed into group accomplishment.

Never give up

Tony is in

With larger groups also comes increasing specialisation. Where the Futtlslutts may form a frontline assault, Mario is behind the scenes drawing up plans, Tony is in a tie opening places easier than a ninja, Slim Jim is mapping every inch of the process with exacting detail and Clem is the glue holding it all together. It was inspiring watching the team go to work on a problem and it’s something we brought back with us from MSP. I think it has helped the LCC gel even more, taking us again back to my initial observations. Urban exploration is a team sport, straight up. If your team sucks, you’re not going to nab a Grail. And seriously folks, drop the politics, when you find someone out there in the world operating alone who brings something exceptional to the team, they deserve your respect and should be brought into the fold.

Who's in?

Our process in London of increasingly trying to work social angles, as a group, was partially inspired by what we saw in MSP at the end of our summer of mayhem. Exploration is about doing exceptional things that challenge and provoke us day after day with a community of close friends; it’s not just the places or the process of exploration that makes this worth doing – it’s the friendships behind it. So in terms of the emails we keep getting, thanks again for those but we’d rather you make move from talking about what could or should be done, pitching possibilities and asking for help pulling your group together and creating those possibilities. We, like the crew in MSP, undertook the research to find out what had been lost to time and then went out and found it in the world – real work that took place with our hands, bodies and minds as a community we built together. As “Gary” once said to me “if you’re in, you’re in, you can’t fake this.” And for diving in head first we earned an invite to visit a crew older than us that we respected immensely. So what now? Well friends, a global community reformation is taking place in front of your eyes. So if you’re ready to give up faking it and start making it, join us.

Triplet

Thank you to everyone in MSP who let us stay on your coaches and floors, fed us fine food and ales and for showing us the wonders of your city – it was spectacular! With the 2012 International Drain Meet coming up soon, I look forward to seeing many of you again.

By the way, you were always our favorite, just don’t tell the others.

_____________

This seems a fine time to mention that the London Consolidation Crew, in collaboration with the MSP Hard Hitters, are going to drop a massive media bomb tomorrow. Keep an eye Silent UK and Place Hacking and wait to feel the shrapnel spray into your retina.

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In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. -Hunter S. Thompson

Pod

I couldn’t believe we were back in Vegas. Being the neurotic adventure-seeking pendulums of desire that we are, we had oscillated between one extreme and another, passing through my beloved quiet desert from LA to Sin City, through blistering days and freezing nights under the stars, from my Mom’s home cooking to endless Del Taco – only to find that Emily Fish had already arrived from Mexico and been camping in McCarren Airport for at least 24 hours. She had constructed a little shanty town out of Indian shawls and suitcase remnants in the baggage claim area and fended off TSA security with honey in the ear and incense sticks. I walked in dripping sweat, stinking of whiskey and gunpowder. She looked me up and down and said, “well honey, I guess we had better go explore everything”. Damn right. We started with a gaudy carpet by the toilets in the Bellagio.

Subtle Clues

Vegas was in shambles. The Sahara casino had closed down. New construction had ceased. The only skyscraper with cranes on site when we arrived was Fountainebleau which Aurelie Curie assured me was secured tighter than Fort Knox. 1 of every 9 homes was in foreclosure due to non-payment of mortgages and unemployment was astronomical. Thinking back to my jaunt though the Las Vegas underworld just a few months back, it was clear nothing had changed since the last time I left poolside to go crawling around underground. The summer of 2011 in Sin City felt like the apocalypse. But as I had already found, Las Vegas history, the real Las Vegas history, makes fops and fools of even the most sincere explorers. The city’s story is riddled with blind alleys, dead ends, crazy twists, and outright fabrication; nothing should be taken at face value here, we had to get out on the strip and take score.

Alarmed drains

As much as I love the city, Vegas is one of those places that you really must assume you may never return to every time you leave, fragile as it is, so you’ve got to milk it. It made sense to start with the Sahara, a Vegas icon recently deceased after 59 years of pwning poor saps and breaking people’s hands with hammers in back rooms. We called up Aurelie and she gave us a hot tip – they were having a liquidation sale. The idea was to pose and buyers taking pictures of potential purchases for a client and walk through the front door, head for the lifts and see where you can get. Solid. Floor 24 please.

Spectacolypse

Angulated

There was a spooky sincerity to the liquidation of the Sahara, evident in the faces of employees and the place itself. The architecture was slumped over against a wall, baking in the heat clutching a bottle, shrugging to passerbys and laughing to itself while trashy families picked at its carcass and wondered to their partners wielding tall cans of Natural Ice whether they could put this on eBay, holding the item in question aloft in the glaring casino floorlights with a discerning eye. We bypassed the hordes and wandered backstage where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, George Carlin & Bill Cosby had performed. Later I found out Aurelie had gone up in the flies the week before. You don’t know until you try.

Soundcloud

Marc Cooper writes that Vegas is purposefully constructed as a self-enclosed and isolated biosphere, sort of what a recreational colony built on the moon might be like. The Sahara in the summer of 2011 was the perfect example of this, a biosphere with holes in the glass, oxygen seeping out into the desert wind with a hissing sound, ready to explode at the flick of a match.

I don't tip

To imagine that for 59 years this place had never closed. Ever. Yet there we sat, alone in quiet buffets and silent rooftops, not even an air conditioner running. It was a spectacular privilege. Extrapolating what we saw in the Sahara, it’s clear this city would ruin like a a hot rod – in the sexiest way possible.

And then we saw it

From the roof of Sahara we could see our last and final target in Vegas – Fountainbleau. It was the only skyscraper in the city under construction, the only one with cranes on it and, as Aurelie had warned us, getting up there would likely require a distraction of immense proportions such as a catastrophic desert thunderstorm or nuclear bomb blast. However, we were determined that it must be done, despite the security patrols vigilantly rolling around on ATVs like circling sharks. There were at least three teams on the ground down there and they were better prepared than us, wielding binoculars and radios.

The final frontier

However, before we could tackle it, we encountered another opportunity altogether. Essentially, we were walking down Las Vegas Boulevard and saw that there was a new Walgreens under construction. The front gate was open and it was 2 in the afternoon, the street swarming with red-faced tourists. We figured we should give it a shot – the worst that would happen is that we would walk into a worker or security, feign drunkenness, apologise, head for the gate and run like hell when we hit the pavement. An archetypal tactic straight out of Access All Areas. As it turned out, though we were all sweating it, there appeared to be no one there. I guess they just took lunch and left the gate open. Cheers guys.

Beautiful

Accident

Failed Security

That was the end of our time together as a group in Vegas. Emily went back to Washington, Witek to Ottawa and Otter to London. Marc Explo and I were left alone to pack up our stuff for a final leg of the trip before our summer was over. But we had one mission left to complete. Since it was unlikely I was coming back to Vegas, I felt compelled to do something grand to mark my time there, to push the bar higher, as our crew does, wherever we go. This desert has attracted all manner of dreamers, from millenarian cultists to visionary artists to advanced weapons scientists from the United States Air Force. They have all made their mark, they have all tested something or other on America’s proving ground. Like bleached bones these dreams lie in the desert sand, faded and chipped but intact; they have their own story to tell, as compelling as the accounts of written history or the stirring narratives of museums. So at 3am on Sunday before we flew out, Marc and I dodged the security patrols and alarms and climbed the 68 story Fountaineblue skyscraper. These photos are my parting gift to one one my favorite cities in the United States. With love.

We did it

It will never be done again

Lick it or click it. No really, click it. Click it.

Thank you to all my friends in Vegas including Matthew O’Brien, Joshua Ellis and Aurelie Curie. Thanks as well to Marcia and Jack Kulpa for allowing me to look after your beautiful house for the summer.

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place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many directions and distances. -Rebecca Solnit

Slice

Most people, I would venture to guess, tend to think of home as a place of comfort and rest, peace and solace. The Inland Empire of Southern California in the 1990s, where I grew up, did not hold these qualities for me. Perhaps that’s because home exhibits a certain plastic tendency that enables its boundaries to expand and shrink, which allows it to signify other geographical scales and although my family and friends were steadfast, I never saw SoCal, on a larger scale, as place I could call home. It was too pretentious, too materialistic, too filled with mischanneled testosterone. Riverside was a place in the midst of thriving, unsustainable gentrification on the road to inevitable economic collapse, a contested border zone caught between violent gang-fueled street warfare driven by teenagers like myself eager to claim identity in primaeval non-places and an increasingly Disneyfied social landscape which wasn’t necessarily conducive to rootedness and largely rejected our aggressive attempts at placemaking.

Homefront

When I turned sixteen and finally got a car (the hallmark of Southern California freedom), I absconded every chance I had. I usually ventured into the Mojave Desert, a landscape full of dry lake beds washed long ago to a surface as flat and inviting as a dance floor when dry. These are the places where the desert is most itself: stark, open, free, and invitation to wander, a laboratory of perception, scale, light, a place where loneliness has a luxurious flavor… The inhospitable Mojave Desert is, I think, primarily envisaged as a barrier to overcome between places, perhaps even the antithesis of home. For me, as for Rebecca Solnit and Harold Budd, two people I greatly admire, it was always more home than home was, a space I could always find room to carve a place for myself.

Delicate

However, Marc Explo, Otter, Witek and I had now emerged from the desert, stopping for our successful infiltration of The Boneyard on our way to the City of Angels. There was only one road back to L.A. – U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. We rolled into the ghetto of Los Angeles late and failed to get into the Belmont Tunnel (it had been turned into a museum or apartments or an amusement park or something – it all looks the same) and then succeeded climbing on top of the Queen Mary before arriving at my parent’s house to take our first shower in a long while.

Queen Mary

We were looping around to my brother Pip’s house in Canyon Lake. When we arrived, he pulled out tequila, maps and firearms and gave us three hot tips before taking us on a drunken ride in his pimped-out 4×4 golf cart and sending us on our merry way. Tip one was that in the mountains near Big Bear, he knew a series of radio towers we could climb to get proper David Lynch-esque skyline shots of the Inland Empire. Tip two was that there was a water park in nearby Redlands called Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom that was apparently abandoned. Both sounded like great opportunities for me to try and apply my placehacker skills acquired in Europe to home – making place ours by learning it from the inside out – just as Pip and I had done a year back at the March Air Reserve Base Hospital.

Dizzy spell

Place of fear

Quiet up here

The radio tower did indeed turn out to be a wonder. As a bonus, when we pulled up to it, there was a herd of local kids gearing up to climb it as well. We shared our beer with them and climbed the tower together. Afterwards, they went back to their Ford F-350 and started blasting country music and I was unhappily reminded of our current geographic location on earth. I left satisfied regardless, having never seen the IE from that scale. After the successful climb we were pumped to sneak into the abandoned water park. Which didn’t exactly go as planned.

Infiltration

When we arrived Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, it was clear that the abandoned areas of the park had been quickly knocked down and the ground salted, all memory of that failure erased from history (go California!). What remained standing was very much active. However, it was two in the morning, we’d had a few beers up the tower and we were gearing up to head back into the desert, so we decided to run through the sprinklers and hop the fence anyway. Inside, we climbed the first waterslide where we could see the security guard off in the distance talking to a girl in a car. Easy. We climbed down the slides, which were surprisingly unslippery without water, and then grabbed some inner tubes off a big pile and floated around in the pools. Then we turned a corner and hit the jackpot – a snack booth with an open window. I slid through and found a fridge full of energy drinks, a nacho cheese dispenser and a Slurpee machine. Breakfast served. With a car full of fresh beverages, two new guns from Pip, and a few hot photos to tell the tale, we bailed from the Inland Empire again – I had hit my three-day tolerance threshold. Plus, Pip had a final mission for us – he suggested we hit some mines in the Calico Mountains on the way back to Vegas. So we found ourselves back in the Mojave again driving by torchlight into the hills somewhere near Yermo, California, set up camp and built a fire.

Shared

Inside the tunnels of an old mine where the extraction of silver from the earth had long ceased, we were soon 10 meters underneath the ground level, climbing deeper into the belly of the earth through long forgotten mine shafts. Outside is was blisteringly hot. Equipped with cameras, a multitude of light sources and an unquenchable thirst to find out what was left behind, we climbed as deep as we could go. The deepest levels of the mines eluded us on this trip but our time was running out and we were not yet done with Vegas. Like gill-breathers, we had to keep moving, stillness would surely mean death for us all in this heat. We popped off a few more rounds and smoked the tires onto I-15 again.

Temperature rise

Nosedive

Although I was again a tourist here, passing through this surly desert, we were, as intended, beyond conventional tourism in our Powerslide delirium. But we were also beyond urban exploration. Was it even urban anymore? We were on an adventure pilgrimage, a quasi-spiritual journey, a failing search for a solitudiness, personal, semi-spiritual relation to place where we kept running into plastic and Wal-Mart super stores. Our romantic gaze reinforced the mythology of the desert in the most predictable ways, finding the only place where the Western Frontier still exists as some horrible shattered and lonely revenant, even as we worked to stake our promised claim to the freedom of the American West. It was toxically intoxicating and caused spontaneous moments of frustrated Tourette-like outbursts from the crew.

Unlikely cowboys

Leftovers

In my quest to remake home turf utilising a social template I was more comfortable with, all I really succeeded in doing was creating a Frankensteinien iteration that no one understood, just like every post on this site. Although home is posited as relational – the ever-changing outcome of the ongoing and mediated interaction between self, others and place, I am not sure we ever found home on this trip – we remained the urban nomads we have become. Though we did succeed, perhaps, in layering up my relationship with my past in new ways and I always enjoy the process of overcomplicating things that are supposed to be simple like nostalgia. To wit, if we consider home as a set of intersecting and variable ideas and feelings, which are related to context, and which construct places, extend across spaces and scales, and connects places, then maybe I can justify the ways I have always thought of that stretch of I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles as an escape hatch, my personal pilgrimage trail of meditative space between two extreme forces of Western capital, violence and rampant resource consumption, the eye of the storm.

Long term

Occupation

For some, the I-15 trail is a right of passage, the road trip that marks the 21 year old transition into adulthood (with the associated benefits of inebriated gambling). To others, the trail itself is the journey to seek. In either case, it’s obvious that the myths of this place go deeper than the notion of  ‘a place between here and there’. We can explore the Mojave as a simultaneous destination and journey that speaks to different scales of home and to the fragile geopolitical climate of the now.

In terms of Riverside, well, I readily admit cowardice to my childhood associates. I ran from the Inland Empire and every time I go back, just like this trip, I fail to connect with it in a meaningful way and return to my crew in London. However, I can’t help but think that if I return enough times, trying to carve out a place for myself in my home turf in whatever ways I am able, one day I might be able to return. In the meantime, we headed back to Vegas for one final blowout before Otter and Witek flew back to their respective countries. See you back on the strip.

Photo by Katie Draper

Explore what’s left. Make what’s not.

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